Common Mistake: Over-Defensiveness

Common Mistake #4: sound too defensive when asked about one’s background

Previously I talked about the mistake of being apologetic about one’s background. Related to that mistake is the mistake of being too defensive when asked to explain weak spots or holes.

Notice the modifier "too" here.  I don’t think it’s wrong to defend your background or qualification, but the key to doing it right is knowing what to say and when to stop.

General guideline: offer a short, believable, sincere explanation.  You can mention factors or forces beyond your control, or state how you did make a mistake but took steps to correct it.  Never be too negative about other people or use unbelievable excuses.

A couple of examples follow.

Example #1

Interviewer: Why did you quit your Ph.D. program?
Apologetic response: I’m sorry I could continue with the program. I’ve always felt bad about leaving the program. I know maybe I’m not as strong as some of your candidates. I’m embarrassed. [Very bad answer!]
Over-defensive response: I left because my advisor was an asshole and he shanghaied me into working as slave labor for his boring research. The department head was also an asshole because he didn’t give me the fellowship I deserved. I would have stayed if they were more understanding and supportive. I know I made a mistake but it wasn’t my fault, you know. I feel I did absolutely the right thing by leaving those jerks.
Right response: I left because I realized what the program offered in terms of education was not what I had wanted. It was too theoretical, too academic. I wanted to do things that were more practical. I believe I made the right choice and am ready to start an industry career.

Example #2

Interviewer: Why didn’t you take a class in stochastic calculus?
Apologetic response: I really should have. I really should have. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it. I was too naive and ignorant. I promise you I’ll take such a class or read all the 100 textbooks on the subject when I go home tonight.
Over-defensive response: My school is crappy and the class is taught by an old geezer who can’t speak English. You know, it’s no fault of my own. I always wanted to take the class but that old jerkoff can’t teach a thing. Plus they charge $5,000 for that class. I ain’t got that kind of money.
Right response: My curriculum was already loaded with different quantitative classes. Frankly, I wasn’t aware that stochastic calculus was an important subject. But you can see I’m strong in other subject areas such as time series, linear algebra and computational finance.
Right response: My school doesn’t offer a stochastic calculus class. BTW, do you think it’s important to learn in order to be a quant?

I hope these examples serve to illustrate the point that you can be assertive, but must not be overly defensive.  How to do it right is an art and takes some practice.  Just remember: if you find yourself saying lots of negative things about someone else or trying to come up with excuses, stop immediately and just tell the truth – and keep the truth short!

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